30+ fun and interesting facts about Italian food you will love: Italian food facts that will make each morsel even more delicious!
Food is a huge part of Italian culture and we Italians take it pretty seriously.
So seriously in facts, that some food combinations, if requested in a restaurant, may gain you odd looks or even an eye roll (pizza and pineapple is a good example!) – when it comes to food, politeness often goes out of the window in Italy!
So today I put together some fun and interesting facts about Italian food and some traditions about it that can be fun to learn and help you enjoy your food even more and break the rules knowingly, should you wish to!
Facts about Italian food: pizza facts
Pizza is not from Italy
When we think of pizza, we tend to think of Italy however, pizza in its origins is much more ancient than what we call pizza nowadays and doesn’t seem to have been born in Italy after all.
Ancient documents from as far back as 3000BC report the use of yeast to create a pizza-like dough and they come for Egypt and Greece as well as from Sardinia, meaning we cannot pinpoint one specific place or comment in time when pizza as an idea was born.
We can however, pinpoint when pizza as we know it know was born – see below!
Pizza Margherita is the Queen of all pizzas
Pizza Margherita is the queen of all pizzas and not just because of its popularity but because of its origins too.
Humble Pizza Margherita owns its name to an actual Queen, Queen Margherita of Savoy, for whom this pizza was first prepared.
The story tells is the Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito one day decided to create a dish fit for a queen and created a pizza that had the colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato sauce), white (Mozzarella) and basil (green) – an edible tricolor!
Neapolitan Pizza is UNESCO World heritage
Pizza comes in several variations (thin, thick, even fried) but the pizza you eat in Naples, made according to tradition, is so special, UNESCO declared the art of making it intangible heritage!
Indeed, there is nothing quite like it and if you are lucky enough to taste the real thing, it is hard to go back and enjoy anything else!
You don’t find pineapple on pizza in Italy
Pizza with pineapple is popular abroad but you cannot get it in Italy and many will look at you in horror at the mere mention.
Italians are relaxed about many things but food is not one of them and pizza and pineapple somehow is completely unacceptable.
You will however find quite a variety of toppings for your pizza: Pizza Napoli (with anchovies), pizza capricciosa (mozzarella, ham, artichokes, olives, tomato sauce), pizza quattro stagioni (4 different toppings in one pizza, to represent different seasons), funghi (mushrooms) are only some of the most popular and this is without inlcuding focaccias, the pizzas without tomato sauce!
You do however have Pizza with nutella
The idea of pizza with nutella may sound awful but actually: the combination is delicious!
The type of pizza you use is, of course, without tomato sauce or cheese so basically the result is close to that of bread with nutella, with an extra touch of saltiness that makes it that little more delicious!
Round pizza is for evening meals only
This is changing now however traditionally, round pizza was only served for dinner!
To have pizza at lunch you wouldn’t go to a pizzeria but rather, you would go to a bakery or take out pizza place (pizzeria al taglio), where the pizza you get is in slices and thicker than that the wood fire one.
This is why sometimes you find signs that say ’round pizza for lunch too’, a sign that simply makes no sense unless you know why such a concept is so innovative!
Facts about Italian pasta
There are over 300 shapes of pasta in Italy
Pasta is the main staple of the Italian diet and it comes, literally, in all shapes and sizes.
At present, you can buy over 300 types of fresh pasta (pasta all’uovo, the type you keep in the fridge) and dry (the one you find in boxes in the supermarket)!
Italy produces over 3tons of pasta each year
Italians love pasta and also export vast amounts of it.
In Italy, the most popular type of long pasta
The most popular long pasta shapes in Italy are spaghetti, while the most common short type ones penne, rigatoni, fusilli and farfalle.
Some pasta comes in two formats ‘rigato’ (with small grooves) and ‘liscio’: always go for ‘rigato’ as it absorbs the sauce better!
There are rules about pairing pasta shapes and sauces
In Italian restaurants you cannot pick and choose the shape of pasta you prefer and match it with a sauce you fancy.
Rather, it is the chef who decides what pasta format is best for the sauce they are using.
This is why you find one menus trofie al pesto and not ‘pasta al pesto’ or ‘fettuccine al ragu’ rather than ‘pasta al ragu’.
While there is more freedom at home, many Italians keep the rules when cooking for themselves too.
As a general rule, short pasta is for milder sauces that you don’t mind biting into while stronger tastes like pesto is better on long shaped pasta.
The thin coating giving a better, more subtle taste than a dollop of pesto all concentrated in one ‘rigatone‘!
You never ever add cream to carbonara
Carbonara is from Rome and us Romans are evangelical about what real carbonara is like (we are actually really annoying about this!).
The biggest food faux pas you can commit with carboara is to add or ask for cream:the creaminess of carbonara is given by the proper preparation of the egg sauce, not cream, ever!
Different regions have different pasta specialties
You can eat pasta pretty much anywhere in Italy but some regions have traditional dishes that are unique.
Pesto is best eaten in Genova, Liguria
Original ragout (what abroad is called Bolognese) is best eaten in Bologna or in Tuscany (in its Tuscan variation, ragout toscano),
Gnocchi alla sorrentina are from Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast and
Orecchiette con le cime di rapa are from Puglia, just to name a few!
Italian food for special occasion
On new years eve you simply must eat lentils
Lentils are a very popular food in Italy and they are eaten all year round but there is one night of the year when having them is almost a must: new years eve and day!
Lentils symbolize money so the tradition says that the more lentils you eat at the start of the year, the more money you will have. So in doubt…
Pandoro and Panettone are for Christmas only
Italy has delicious Christmas food that is available during the festivities only.
The most famous Christmas foods in Italy are Pandoro and Panettone, which you only find in shops between the end of November and early January.
Chiacchiere are for carnival only
Carnival is a big festivity in Italy and like all big festivities it is marked by its own seasonal food!
Carnival sweets are usually fried and sweet: the most popular are chiacchiere (aka frappe, stracci, cenci, crostoli…. they have many names!), castagnole and bigne di san Giuseppe.
‘Colomba’ is for Easter only
Easter has its own special foods as well and the quintessential Easter sweet is called ‘Colomba’ (lit. ‘dove’).
This is a type of store bought sweet not entirely dissimilar from panettone but with almonds and shape like a dove
More facts about Italian food
Tuscan bread has no salt for historical reasons
If you hve ever tasted Tuscan bread you may have noticed that is is made with no salt, a characteristic that makes it surprisingly delicious!
The reason for the lack of salt is historical: apparently, Pisa had control over salt trade and, in 1100, imposed a tax on salt.
Florence decided to resist, refused to pay and created bread without it, making it so nice, it is not one of the most famous foods in the region!
Sicilian cuisine is hugely influenced by Arabic flavors
Sicilian cuisine is different from that of many other regions and has some stunning flavors such as marzipan and couscous that make it stand out from others in continental Italy.
The reason for this difference is the influence of the wonderful Arabic cuisine that got to Sicily during the time of Arabic civilization here and the proximity to northers Africa.
Different regions have altogether different foods
Pasta is not the only thing that varies from region to region.
Risotto alla Milanese is typical of Milan, Risi e bisi and Fegato alla Veneziana are specific from the area of Venice, Arrosticini are from Abruzzo and how can we forget cassata and cannoli, among the most delightful of Sicilian dishes.
learn about Italian regional foods here
Prosciutto di Parma is not just just cured ham
Prosciutto di Parma is often called ‘prosciutto crudo’ in Italian (simply raw ham, as opposed to prosciutto cotto, cooked ham) however, not all ham is Parma Ham!
Parma ham is a specific food denomination of a product coming from the region of Parma and known for a particularly important tradition and preparation technique.
The real prosciutto di Parma is protected by EU law and is now a DOP so that only the real thing can be marketed under this prestigious name
Parmigiano Reggiano dates back to the Middle Ages
Parmigiano Reggiano, another made in Italy food now known around the world, has been around for over 9 centuries!
The story goes that it was first created by Benedictine monks in Emilia, the region still famous for its production.
Tomatoes are not originally from Italy
Tomatoes, considered one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet, came to Italy from America.
They only entered thee Mediterranean diet in the mid XVI century but took so well, they are now grown in several parts of the country and widely used in cooking.
You find no garlic bread in Italy
Garlic bread is another staple in many Italian restaurants abroad however, it is not sold as such in Italy.
What you have in Italy is bruschetta which is grilled bread with garlic an olive oil (plain) or dressed with tomatoes or pates.
Garlic bread is usually served as a startert in pizzerie and it is never made with butter but, rather, olive oil.
Gelato is not just Italian for ‘icecream’
Gelato is not the Italian word for ice cream, but rather, an Italian specialty with peculiar characteristic.
Gelato is less cold than ice cream, it has lower fat content than industrial ice cream and, in its creamy flavors, it is usually made with eggs and milk. Real gelato is called ‘gelato artigianale: you can read all the differences between the 2 here.
No one knows where tiramisu was born
It is not entirely clear where Tiramisu was born but the story goes that it was born in Treviso, which is the city with the strongest claims on its paternity.
Nowadays, it is so widespread in Italy that you find it no matter where you are.
Evem more Italin food facts: coffee and drinks
Italians drink over 6kg of coffee each year
Italians love coffee and we drink over 6kg of coffee per year!
There are over 149.000 cafes in Italy and they serve on average 175 coffee cups per day!
If you order coffee in Italy you get an espresso
When you order ‘un caffe’ in Italy or ‘a coffee’ you get what abroad is known as espresso, a shot of coffee in a small cup.
You can say ‘espresso’ in Italy too but really, the way to order it is ‘un caffe’ per favore‘ (one coffee please).
Ordering a Latte in Italian will get you a glass of milk
It is worth knowing that if you order a ‘latte’ in Italy you will get a glass of milk (latte is Italian for milk).
If you want the equivalent of a foreign latte, you need to ask for latte macchiato
Caffe’ corretto may not be what you think
Caffe’ corretto (lit corrected coffee) is not as innicent as it may lok: corretto means it is made with a dash of alcohol: order with caution!
Tea in Italy is hot
Unless you ask for ‘te freddo’, in Italyu tea is served hot and usually with a slice of leon on the side.
Cappuccino after 11 it totally ok
Despite what is often found on the web, you can drink cappuccino after 11 in Italy.
While it is a quintessential morning drink, often part of the traditional Italian breakfast, it is very common for people to order it up to early in the afternoon.
It is however less common to have it after dinner, mostly because this milky coffee makes it too heavy on the digestion.
Coffee is for after a meal, never to accompany it
Coffee in Italy is drank in the morning or after a meal, never as a accompaniment to it.
Breakfast in Italy is a small and fast affair
Breakfast in Italy is a rather small meal.
Usually, as a traditional Italian breakfast Italians have coffee with or without milk (children often have have cocoa milk) with bread butter and jam or biscuits.
Aperitivo was born in Turin
Aperitivo, the Italian tradition of drinks with a light meal before dinner, was born in Turin but gained widespread popularity in Milan.
It is one of the most beloved Italian traditions and one that can be enjoyed at any age (Aperitivo doesn’t have to include alcohol). You can learn all about Italian apertivo here.
Limoncello is made with lemon peel
Limoncello is one of the most popular Italian liquors and it is made with lemon peel from a specific area of Italy, the Amalfi Coast.
Here, specifically in the town of Minori, you can still see the lemon groves and walk the path the lemon growers used to walk to carry the lemons from the trees to the town!
Digestif is a common way to end a big dinner
at the end of a generous evening meal, it is common practice to offer your guests a small shot of digestiv. Amaro, sambuca, grappa are all good examples of digestif drinks: you can learn all about them here!
I hope you enjoyed these fun facts about Italian food. Buon appetito!